On July 15, 1955, about 50 Laguna locals got together to hold a surfing contest at Brooks Street beach. None of those early pioneers could have imagined that, more than a half century later, hundreds would be waiting for the perfect waves that will launch this year’s 50th edition of the world’s longest running surfing contest, expected this Labor Day weekend. “Brooks Street’s just a special surfing spot. No ifs, ands or buts,” said 70-year-old Bing Boka, who competed in the first dozen or so of what is now known as the Brooks Street Classic.
Except for several summers when the waves didn’t cooperate, the event has gone off every year since ’55. The biggest break, so to speak, was a three-year period between 2006 and 2008, when conditions were unusually flat.
Boka remembers the waves at Brooks being a lot bigger when he competed. Once or twice a month he and his friends were able to ride “second reefers” in to the beach. Today, he said, Brooks Street surfers may see waves take shape over a reef a good distance offshore once or twice a summer, depending on the swell’s direction.
The first Brooks offered two events and two divisions: men’s and junior men’s surfing and paddle board. Today there are 12 divisions and four events: short board, long board, stand-up paddleboard, and body board. Ron Sizemore, who at 66 will be competing in his 45th Brooks this year, has entered the most. Jeff Booth, with 13 victories, has probably won the most. Robin Calhoun won the first women’s division title in 1963.
Before his retirement as recreation department supervisor last year, Ron Lutz was mainly responsible for coordinating 36 of the previous 49 Brooks Classics. And though the event is city sponsored, Lutz, who has never surfed, gives most of the credit for making the event so successful to Brandy Faber and other members of the local surfing community. “Brandy does a lot of work to make the thing go,” said Lutz.
“It means a lot in the history of surfing,” said Faber. “It’s a great community event that brings multiple generations of Lagunans together.”
During the summer, Faber and others monitor the local surf report. When southern swells begin to form, usually driven by a south Pacific hurricane, it’s game on. All of a sudden “you get this crazy influx of people just signing up, you know, and we’re trying to build and organize the contest as it goes,” said Faber after last year’s event.
“We’re taking 95% of the entries right there at the beach,” said Lutz.
Even before cell phones and email, getting the word out that the contest was on was a piece of cake compared to the organized chaos of logging entries and scheduling heats. “Land lines,” Lutz said. “One phone call to another guy, to another guy, to another guy, and it’s all done.”
Entry fees pay for the Brooks each year. “It’s a true community event that’s basically run on a shoestring,” said Lutz, a salaried employee who would spend up to 26 hours at the beach during the two-day competition. “It’s a grueling event, but I always had a great time doing it,” he said.
After unsuccessful attempts to hire professional judges in the late ‘60s, the Brooks became an all-volunteer, self-judging event. “We simply grab the judges right there at the beach,” Lutz said.
Another unique quirk of the contest is that it’s open only to Laguna residents; a rule Lutz said he always policed itself. “All the years I was down there, I checked one ID,” he said, urged to do so by a local who spotted someone from out of town. “He was just trying to sneak into the event,” said Lutz.
When Boka was first learning to surf, Brooks and other local breaks were not as crowded as they are today. The older guys would often say, “ ‘okay kid, this wave’s yours.’ That doesn’t happen anymore,” Boka said.
Darren Madrigal, known as Dagwood by locals, said a chance to ride an uncrowded Brooks break is what makes the event so popular. “One of the best things about the Brooks Street contest is you get to surf perfect waves with just a couple of your friends.”
Although competition for waves at Brooks has picked up over the years, Madrigal’s son Dante has received a lot of encouragement and support from the older set after he decided to enter his first Brooks this year. “I just wanted to try it. See how it works,” he said.
Madrigal was a little apprehensive about his 12-year-old son being in big wave conditions until Dante stared down a set of double overheads at Lower Trestles during a recent session at San Onofre State Beach. Madrigal is sure the experience helped prepare Dante for the prospect of dropping in on a Brooks bomb. “That’s what’s beautiful about surfing,” he said. “When you face your fears and you overcome it, you get so confident.”
Just like Boka did at the first Brooks 56 years ago, Dante hopes to make the 50th the first of many. “I hope it’s big,” Dante said. “It’s not really Brooks Street if it’s not big.”